Bourbon, straight up

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Kentucky, the only place allowed to call its whiskey Bourbon, people drink the famous liquid just with ice. That's how I drank it a couple of years back, under the guidance of Ed O'Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Like everyone in the industry, he disdains the addition of Coke: as one distiller put it, "If God had wanted Bourbon to be sweet, he'd have put sugar in it."

In Kentucky, the only place allowed to call its whiskey Bourbon, people drink the famous liquid just with ice. That's how I drank it a couple of years back, under the guidance of Ed O'Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. Like everyone in the industry, he disdains the addition of Coke: as one distiller put it, "If God had wanted Bourbon to be sweet, he'd have put sugar in it."

Bourbon has but four ingredients: water, corn, malted grain, and a charred oak barrel. In that sense it's a very simple liquid. But the devil's in the details. The important technicality is the interaction between the spirit and the barrel in which it ages. When the liquor leaves the distillery, it is known as "white dog", one of the vilest fluids you can imagine. Dettol tastes better.

The oak barrels, which (unlike for wine or Scotch) are used just once, turn white dog into amber god. And every distillery has a master distiller overseeing its operations; average tenure seems to be measured in decades rather than years. Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey has been there nearly five.

The heat in the houses (ricks) where the barrels are stored reaches up to 60C, making the liquid expand into the barrel; in winter the liquid contracts, drawing in wood extracts. Thus, while the best Scotch needs at least 10 or 12 years in used barrels (and chilly climates), six to eight years is plenty for its Kentuckian brethren.

Since the 1980s there has been a vogue for making "single-barrel" Bourbons. These come about because each barrel occupies a unique location in a unique rick. In a tall rick, for instance, barrels near the top get hotter than those near the bottom, giving each a distinct character. The distiller will decide that a particular barrel is so good it should be bottled on its own.

Single-barrel Bourbon is hard to find in the UK, but that doesn't matter when we have widely available brands of real excellence.The best, in my view, is Maker's Mark which uses a high proportion of wheat (16 per cent), giving a mellow, rounded smoothness. This is "small batch" Bourbon, produced at the rate of 50 to 60 barrels a day (Wild Turkey, my other mass-market favourite, makes around 10 times that amount). And it uses expensive techniques, including the regular rotation of barrels so they all develop at the same rate.

Bourbon is expected to boom over here: a Mintel report suggests that the market for imported whiskeys will increase by almost 35 per cent in the next four years. And big US drinks groups are making a push in anticipation. Jim Beam's collection of four small-batch Bourbons was launched here in the summer, with top place going to the big, raspingly alcoholic Booker's. Seagram's Bulleit is an even newer entrant, moderately attractive at a moderate price (£17.99 in Tesco and Oddbins). Brown-Forman's Woodforde Reserve, from the Labrot & Graham distillery, is another good smoothie. None of them beats Maker's, however. If you want an intro, the Mark is the place to start. Just don't mix it with Coke.

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